This small novel reflects the passing of a generation, the evolution of a country and the difficult terrain of mother-son relationships. The novel begins in Karachi, Pakistan, in the mid-1980s at a family gathering, a celebration of the marriage of the son of Bilqis Ara Begum, a widow in her sixties. Bilqis’ son Samad has wed an Australian named Kate and chosen to live with his new wife in her native country.
Firmly entrenched in the traditions of her culture, Bilqis resists the signs of change on the horizon. The Pakistan that has been her home since she first came here from India during the Partition is assailed with a militarism that does not bode well for the future. Islamic fanatics have gained power along with the military, devoted followers of Islam seeking a return of Sharia law.
With many servants and a comfortable home in one of the better areas of the city, Bilqis has taken the future for granted, buoyed by traditional values that ensure a mother comfort in her old age, a son to care for her. But Bilqis’ generation is coming to an end, replaced by new agendas, angry militants who seek war with India. With Samad leaving for Australia, Bilqis cannot conceive how she will survive, how she will prepare for the old age that is her future.
Bilqis and those like her vainly cling to traditions that no longer suit the emerging factions in Pakistan. For her son, the issue is more personal, a struggle to define himself as a dutiful son and a man with a new wife, a separate family. Samad is consciously breaking with his mother’s expectations yet unable to come to peace with his decision.
The years pass. A granddaughter is born, and Bilqis endures the occasional visit to her son’s new home. But in Karachi, it is clear that Bilqis is trapped by her pride, unwilling to uproot her life and move to Australia. The energy of youth has passed, Bilqis unable to meet the challenges of the present, as illustrated when confronted by her servant’s secret affair with an inappropriate young man, a Pakistani freedom fighter. With age has come the loss of power, of influence and of joy. Bilqis merely inhabits her body, an old woman isolated in her loneliness.
The geography of place lends this intimate novel its particular identity - the changing face of Pakistan in the mid-Eighties - but the story goes beyond the political. This novel is a paean to a mother, a sad, belated goodbye, a tale of passing, regret and forgiveness, of a country and a mother mourned: “Does a mother not ultimately concede everything?”